Spring is well underway, and with it comes the growth of familiar regional flowers and foliage. But beyond the usual seasonal suspects, there’s a huge variety of plants from around the world that can transform your garden and whisk you away to faraway places.
Expert plant cultivator or complete novice, the proven therapeutic benefits of being outside, combined with our desire to know where our food comes from, means that gardening is an increasingly popular hobby. Add to it the access we have to new and interesting plant and seed varieties that can take us to every corner of the world, and you’ll soon be addicted to your green patch.
This season we’re going around the world in 17 plants, with a selection of our favorite garden additions that allow you to travel the globe through your own outdoor space.
San Marzano Tomatoes
Tomatoes thrive throughout the summer months and are one of the easiest plants to grow at home. With hundreds of varieties to choose from, however, it can be difficult to decide between large, misshapen heirlooms that epitomize the season or sweet cherry fruits that grow in abundance.
For a plant that will give all summer long and provide during winter too, it’s the tomato commonly used in passata that wins our attention. Originating from a small town in Naples, Italy, where plants enjoy the rich volcanic soil and warm Meditteranean climate, San Marzano tomatoes are easy to grow and prosper in a sunny location where temperatures remain constant. Seeds are available from most suppliers, including the renowned Johnny’s Seeds, and young plants can often be found at local garden centers and nurseries. Search Monrovia for a comprehensive list of garden centers by zip code.
Italian pumpkins and squash
Although native to the Americas, it is believed that the Italians grow and eat more Cucurbita than the United States. What’s more, the varieties on offer go far beyond the classic orange gourd synonymous with America’s fall. Divided into two main growing categories, summer and winter, the Italian squash is a delicious addition to the garden. The summer squash, also known as zucchini, is typically harvested in its youth and has a more tender, edible skin. Winter squash, also known as zucca, have tougher rinds as a result of allowing the fruit to mature for longer.
The growth habits of both zucchini and zucca are similar, and most varieties require space to spread. Many benefit from sprawling their vines up and over trellises or other sturdy structures so that the fruit can hang down, which helps to improve air circulation and reduce the risk of disease and pests. If growing space is limited, look for more compact bush varieties, some of which can be easily grown in containers or small raised beds.
For authentic Italian Cucurbita seeds, Seeds From Italy is a small, independent company growing and selling varieties from Franchi Seeds, Italy’s oldest family-owned seed company.
England’s quintessential bloom graces gardens up and down the British Isles and is now widely grown all over the United States. From enormous climbing canes that cover archways and trellises to smaller shrub varieties that can be grown in containers, the English rose might be fussy, but what it lacks in ease she makes up for in beauty.
The original and principal English rose breeder, David Austin Roses has an online store that offers a vast array of varieties in pastel shades of apricot, peach, and pink, as well as more luxurious reds and creams. Shipped to growers as either bare roots or two-quart pots, English roses are fast-growing and prolific if tended to correctly. A vigorous climbing variety will cover a large, unsightly wall or add height in the garden when trained onto an arch or obelisk. If space is an issue, smaller shrub roses can be planted in containers and placed strategically for maximum impact.
Wonderfully fragrant, as well as pleasing on the eye, English lavender is a beautiful addition to any outdoor space, especially when in bloom. Flowering from June to August, its delicate purple blossoms invite bees and butterflies to loiter, which are essential to the success of a productive garden.
Tougher than its French cousin, English lavender can successfully overwinter in most gardening zones of the United States and, as such, is a preferred choice when it comes to deciding what kind of lavender plant to invest in. Unlike French lavender, the English varieties make great cut flowers and have excellent culinary properties also.
A low-growing shrub that works wonderfully as an ornamental plant or a culinary herb, French thyme originates from the Provence region of France and is an integral part of both French cooking and heritage. A perfect companion to several vegetables in the garden, including eggplant and potatoes, it is simple to grow and maintain and is considered a perennial throughout most of the United States, meaning it will return year after year with the first signs of spring.
For a vast selection of culinary herbs, visit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. With over 800 varieties of seeds including four different types of thyme, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange focuses on producing natural seeds that are guaranteed to grow in the United States.
Eggplants have been cultivated in Asia for centuries and with so many regional variations, it’s hard to know which ones to add to your garden. Thinner than the more common globe species most are familiar with, Japanese eggplants share all the same properties as other traditional varieties, however, their fruit is slender and range in color.
Similar to the San Marzano tomato, sunshine and heat are a Japanese eggplant’s best friends. For a wider, more productive eggplant bush, gardeners should nip the top of the young plant when it reaches six inches tall. As the plant grows and matures throughout the season, pruning ripe fruit encourages more eggplants to develop.
A cooler climate perennial, rhubarb is native to China and has long been recognized for its healing properties, as well as being known for its delicious partnership with strawberries.
A vegetable by definition but typically consumed as a dessert, it is the stalks of this large plant that are edible, the leaves are in fact poisonous and have been linked to the development of kidney stones. Typically sweetened with sugar and baked in pies, crisps, and crumbles, rhubarb stalks are harvested from the garden early to mid-spring before the plant dies back in autumn. Patience is a virtue, however, with this slow-growing garden addition. It is advisable not to pick from the plant in its first year so as to encourage establishment. In its second season and beyond, be careful not to harvest more than a third of each plant’s stalks — this helps to avoid weakening the rhubarb for future growth.
Although it is best grown directly in the ground in a sunny location, rhubarb prefers not to get too hot; as such, some gardeners may find a partially shaded area to be a more favorable place for it to thrive. A well-planted rhubarb patch given moderate attention at the beginning and end of each growing season will yield beautiful, bright red stalks for years to come. For rhubarb roots to plant this spring, visit Renee’s Garden for a popular variety known as Crimson Red.
Much less acidic than an ordinary lemon and sweet enough to be used raw, the Meyer lemon is a hybrid citrus fruit originating from China, where it is grown for both its decorative and culinary properties.
Brought to US shores in the early 1900s, the Meyer lemon was first cultivated in California, Florida, and Texas. As it limited to these areas until the early 2000s, it was Martha Stewart who popularized this once-unheard variety of citrus and propelled it to the forefront of the culinary world.
A heat-loving sun-worshiper, Meyer lemon trees are containerized where temperatures fall below freezing. In California, Arizona, South Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, trees are planted directly in the ground and can have a lifespan of up to 30 years. Although much smaller, a potted tree can still produce plenty of fruit if sheltered from the wind and cold throughout fall and winter, during which time it makes an excellent indoor plant.
A favorite in the vegetable garden, juvenile cucumbers can be harvested for pickling as little as 50 days after planting. Alternatively, allowing them to grow to their full potential results in a refreshing fruit that needs little preparation.
Native to India, cucumbers once grew in the wild before being domesticated by early Indian civilization. Today, there are several Indian varieties widely available for growing in the United States, all of which enjoy the warm temperatures of summer. Seeds of India is a small horticultural company specializing in vegetables, herbs, and flower seeds that are popular in the subcontinent.
Like squash, cucumbers tend to enjoy having space to spread. Grow vertically in smaller gardens where space is limited by allowing the plant’s soft tendrils to weave and wind their way onto a sturdy structure. The advantage of training a cucumber plant to grow upwards is being able to see the fruit grow more clearly, it also greatly reduces the risk of fungal diseases that can wipe out a crop overnight.
There are approximately 75 different varieties of chili grown in Thailand, but it is the small yet powerful bird pepper that is most widely known. Thought to be 15 times hotter than the average jalapeño, the bird pepper was brought to Southeast Asia in the 16th century. Sometimes referred to as the Thai dragon pepper, this chili ripens to an unmissable bright red and with plants producing as many as 150 fruits each, a little goes a long way. This potent chili is relatively easy to grow and like its tomato and eggplant relatives in the nightshade plant family, it thrives in full sun.
For a diverse selection of chili and pepper seeds, including this fiery fruit, visit Refining Fire Chilis who specialize in growing rare chilis are educating growers.
The top vegetable crop in North America, potatoes are grown for commercial use in 30 different States, which means growing them in a home garden is a realistic possibility across much of the country. There are multiple ways to grow potatoes depending on the conditions of your outdoor area. Where space is an issue, grow bags are an excellent way to raise healthy plants that yield a plentiful harvest. Alternatively, planting and growing potatoes using the traditional hilled rows method is tried and true and has been used by farmers for centuries.
When it comes to choosing which variety to grow, the most important aspect to consider is where the seed potatoes come from. Not to be confused with potato seeds, seed potatoes are small parts of the vegetable that have what growers call “eyes.” An eye is a small bud that will become the plant, therefore is it essential the seed potato has at least one. Using store-bought vegetables as seed potatoes is possible, however, not recommended. Diseases are often carried over from the previous season, which can seriously affect a homegrown crop; therefore choose certified seed potatoes for the best possible results.
Native to the meadowlands of Mexico and South America, the cosmos is as much at home in a manicured flower bed as a field of wild blooms and brings both color and movement to the summer garden. Popular in the United States, these daisy-like flowers are noted by experienced gardeners and beginners alike for their abundance and ease. Sown directly from seed and requiring no soil preparation, cosmos take approximately seven weeks to bloom. Once they do, however, they’re wonderfully prolific and produce colorful flowers all season long.
To get a head start, gardeners sow seeds indoors up to six weeks before the last spring frost and transplant to larger pots once they reach four inches tall. Like all plants that have been raised indoors, young seedlings should be hardened off to the external elements before planting them in their permanent home. For unusual color variations combined with classic hues, purchase seeds from the talented Erin Benzakein of Floret. Recognized as one of the nation’s leading farmer-florists, Erin’s heart and soul goes into growing and selling American flowers and it shows in everything her farm produces.
Bold and beautiful, marigolds are the ancient flower of the Aztecs that are believed to guide the spirits of the dead to visit the living during Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos celebrations. For three days at the end of October, altars and gravesites of lost loved ones are bedecked in an array of colorful elements, including the bright and strong-smelling marigold, which is considered the traditional flower to honor the dead.
It is the marigold’s unmistakable scent and striking color that makes it a great addition to the summer garden, attracting beneficial insects such as ladybugs to help to keep the pest population down. The bright blooms invite important pollinators and are said to be one of the best floral additions to a healthy, productive vegetable patch.
African blue basil
Basil is a must in the summer garden, however, traditional varieties are often prone to disease and their lifespan is relatively short. In contrast, this African descendant is a much hardier alternative that not only looks attractive but can also be used in the kitchen also. A hybrid cross between a common garden basil and an East African shrub from the forests of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the African blue basil is a prolific garden plant.
As an added bonus, it is perhaps the only basil to be considered a perennial, which means this lesser-known variety will continue to reappear every season provided it isn’t susceptible to frost.
More commonly known as Lily of the Nile, these sun-loving plants produce large spherical flowers in brilliant shades of blue and white and are a landscape staple in warmer regions. A perennial in the southern United States, agapanthus grows best in USDA Zones 7-11. In cooler areas where winters can be hard, containerized plants can be stored indoors for repeat blooming the following season.
Commonly associated with the koala bear, this Australian native makes up approximately three-quarters of its host country’s forests. There are reportedly over 700 species of eucalyptus growing in abundance in Australia, and although most varieties prefer a more exotic climate, the evergreen globe eucalyptus can be nurtured here in the United States.
Hardy in USDA zones 8-10, the globe eucalyptus can reach towering heights. For the home gardener, it makes a great containerized shrub and with regular pruning and can be kept as a manageable plant for many years.
Australian mint bush
Filling the air with a strong scent of mint when the leaves are bruised, the Australian mint bush, or prostanthera as it’s scientifically known, grows best in southern regions of the United States where summers are hot and winters are mild. Compact yet fast-growing, this highly aromatic Australian native can be planted directly in the ground in USDA zones 8-10 or displayed in pots in colder regions where it may be stored indoors throughout fall and winter.
A bushy, evergreen shrub with sweet pink-purple flowers that bloom in springtime, the Australian mint bush is not considered a culinary herb; however, leaves plucked from the plant can be steeped in hot water to create a herbal drink. Similar to English lavender, its pollen-rich blooms are known to attract bees and other beneficial insects to the garden.